The Good Guy/ Bad Guy Myth

This article was written by Marina Benjamin and published in Aeon Magazine on 25th January 2018.

For the original article please click HERE:

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The first time we see Darth Vader doing more than heavy breathing in Star Wars (1977), he’s strangling a man to death. A few scenes later, he’s blowing up a planet. He kills his subordinates, chokes people with his mind, does all kinds of things a good guy would never do. But then the nature of a bad guy is that he does things a good guy would never do.

Darth Vader

Good guys don’t just fight for personal gain: they fight for what’s right – their values.

This moral physics underlies not just Star Wars, but also film series such as The Lord of the Rings (2001-3) and X-Men (2000-), as well as most Disney cartoons. Virtually all our mass-culture narratives based on folklore have the same structure: good guys battle bad guys for the moral future of society. These tropes are all over our movies and comic books, in Narnia and at Hogwarts, and yet they don’t exist in any folktales, myths or ancient epics. In Marvel comics, Thor has to be worthy of his hammer, and he proves his worth with moral qualities. But in ancient myth, Thor is a god with powers and motives beyond any such idea as ‘worthiness’.

In old folktales, no one fights for values. Individual stories might show the virtues of honesty or hospitality, but there’s no agreement among folktales about which actions are good or bad. When characters get their comeuppance for disobeying advice, for example, there is likely another similar story in which the protagonist survives only because he disobeys advice. Defending a consistent set of values is so central to the logic of newer plots that the stories themselves are often reshaped to create values for characters such as Thor and Loki – who in the 16th-century Icelandic Edda had personalities rather than consistent moral orientations.

Edda

Stories from an oral tradition never have anything like a modern good guy or bad guy in them,  despite their reputation for being moralising. In stories such as Jack and the Beanstalk or Sleeping Beauty, just who is the good guy? Jack is the protagonist we’re meant to root for, yet he has no ethical justification for stealing the giant’s things. Does Sleeping Beauty care about goodness? Does anyone fight crime? Even tales that can be made to seem like they are about good versus evil, such as the story of Cinderella, do not hinge on so simple a moral dichotomy. In traditional oral versions, Cinderella merely needs to be beautiful to make the story work. In the Three Little Pigs, neither pigs nor wolf deploy tactics that the other side wouldn’t stoop to. It’s just a question of who gets dinner first, not good versus evil.

The situation is more complex in epics such as The Iliad, which does have two ‘teams’, as well as characters who wrestle with moral meanings. But the teams don’t represent the clash of two sets of values in the same way that modern good guys and bad guys do. Neither Achilles nor Hector stands for values that the other side cannot abide, nor are they fighting to protect the world from the other team. They don’t symbolise anything but themselves and, though they talk about war often, they never cite their values as the reason to fight the good fight. The ostensibly moral face-off between good and evil is a recent invention that evolved in concert with modern nationalism – and, ultimately, it gives voice to a political vision not an ethical one.

Propoganda

Most folklore scholarship since the Second World War has been concerned with archetypes or commonalities among folktales, the implicit drive being that if the myths and stories of all nations had more in common than divided them, then people of all nations could likewise have more in common than divides us. It was a radical idea, when earlier folktales had been published specifically to show how people in one nation were unlike those in another.

In her study of folklore From the Beast to the Blonde (1995), the English author and critic Marina Warner rejects a reading of folktales, popularised by the American child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, as a set of analogies for our psychological and developmental struggles. Warner argues instead that external circumstances make these stories resonate with readers and listeners through the centuries. Still, both scholars want to trace the common tropes of folktales and fairy-tales insofar as they stay the same, or similar, through the centuries.

Princess and Trolls

Novelists and filmmakers who base their work on folklore also seem to focus on commonalities. George Lucas very explicitly based Star Wars on Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), which describes the journey of a figure such as Luke Skywalker as a human universal. J R R Tolkien used his scholarship of Old English epics to recast the stories in an alternative, timeless landscape; and many comic books explicitly or implicitly recycle the ancient myths and legends, keeping alive story threads shared by stories new and old, or that old stories from different societies around the world share with each other.

Less discussed is the historic shift that altered the nature of so many of our modern retellings of folklore, to wit: the idea that people on opposite sides of conflicts have different moral qualities, and fight over their values. That shift lies in the good guy/bad guy dichotomy, where people no longer fight over who gets dinner, or who gets Helen of Troy, but over who gets to change or improve society’s values. Good guys stand up for what they believe in, and are willing to die for a cause. This trope is so omnipresent in our modern stories, movies, books, even our political metaphors, that it is sometimes difficult to see how new it is, or how bizarre it looks, considered in light of either ethics or storytelling.

Grimms Fairy Tales

When the Grimm brothers wrote down their local folktales in the 19th century, their aim was to use them to define the German Volk, and unite the German people into a modern nation. The Grimms were students of the philosophy of Johann Gottfried von Herder, who emphasised the role of language and folk traditions in defining values. In his Treatise on the Origin of Language (1772), von Herder argued that language was ‘a natural organ of the understanding’, and that the German patriotic spirit resided in the way that the nation’s language and history developed over time. Von Herder and the Grimms were proponents of the then-new idea that the citizens of a nation should be bound by a common set of values, not by kinship or land use. For the Grimms, stories such as Godfather Death, or the Knapsack, the Hat and the Horn, revealed the pure form of thought that arose from their language.

The corollary of uniting the Volk through a storified set of essential characteristics and values is that those outside the culture were seen as lacking the values Germans considered their own. Von Herder might have understood the potential for mass violence in this idea, because he praised the wonderful variety of human cultures: specifically, he believed that German Jews should have equal rights to German Christians. Still, the nationalist potential of the Grimm brothers’ project was gradually amplified as its influence spread across Europe, and folklorists began writing books of national folklore specifically to define their own national character. Not least, many modern nations went on to realise the explosive possibilities for abuse in a mode of thinking that casts ‘the other’ as a kind of moral monster.

Slavic Myth

In her book The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales (1987), the American scholar Maria Tatar remarks on the way that Wilhelm Grimm would slip in, say, adages about the importance of keeping promises. She argued that: ‘Rather than coming to terms with the absence of a moral order … he persisted in adding moral pronouncements even where there was no moral.’ Such additions established the idea that it was values (not just dinner) at stake in the conflicts that these stories dramatised. No doubt the Grimms’ additions influenced Bettelheim, Campbell and other folklorists who argued for the inherent morality of folktales, even if they had not always been told as moral fables.

As part of this new nationalist consciousness, other authors started changing the old stories to make a moral distinction between, for example, Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham. Before Joseph Ritson’s 1795 retelling of these legends, earlier written stories about the outlaw mostly showed him carousing in the forest with his merry men. He didn’t rob from the rich to give to the poor until Ritson’s version – written to inspire a British populist uprising after the French Revolution. Ritson’s rendering was so popular that modern retellings of Robin Hood, such as Disney’s 1973 cartoon or the film Prince of Thieves (1991) are more centrally about outlaw moral obligations than outlaw hijinks. The Sheriff of Nottingham was transformed from a simple antagonist to someone who symbolised the abuses of power against the powerless. Even within a single nation (Robin Hood), or a single household (Cinderella), every scale of conflict was restaged as a conflict of values.

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Neither the Greeks nor the Trojans stand for some set of human strengths or frailties

Or consider the legend of King Arthur. In the 12th century, poets writing about him were often French, like Chrétien de Troyes, because King Arthur wasn’t yet closely associated with the soul of Britain. What’s more, his adversaries were often, literally, monsters, rather than people who symbolised moral weaknesses. By the early 19th century, when Tennyson wrote Idylls of the King, King Arthur becomes an ideal of a specifically British manhood, and he battles human characters who represent moral frailties. By the 20th century, the word ‘Camelot’ came to mean a kingdom too idealistic to survive on Earth.

Once the idea of national values entered our storytelling, the peculiar moral physics underlying the phenomenon of good guys versus bad guys has been remarkably consistent. One telling feature is that characters frequently change sides in conflicts: if a character’s identity resides in his values, then when he changes his mind about a moral question, he is essentially swapping sides, or defecting. This is not always acknowledged. For example, when in the PBS series Power of Myth (1988) the journalist Bill Moyers discussed with Campbell how many ancient tropes Star Wars deployed, they didn’t consider how bizarre it would have seemed to the ancient storytellers had Darth Vader changed his mind about anger and hatred, and switched sides in his war with Luke and the Rebels. Contrast this with The Iliad, where Achilles doesn’t become Trojan when he is angry at Agamemnon. Neither the Greeks nor the Trojans stand for some set of human strengths or frailties. Since their conflict is not a metaphor for some internal battle of anger versus love, switching sides because of a transport of feeling would be incoherent. In Star Wars, the opposing teams each represent a set of human properties. What side Darth Vader fights on is therefore absolutely dependent on whether anger or love is foremost in his heart.

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Bad guys change their minds and become good in exactly the same way in countless, ostensibly folkloric, modern stories: The Lord of the RingsBuffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), the Harry Potter series (1997-2007). When a bad character has a change of heart, it’s always a cathartic emotional moment – since what’s at stake for a character is losing the central part of his identity. Another peculiarity in the moral physics of good guys versus bad is that bad guys have no loyalty and routinely punish their own; whether it’s the Sheriff of Nottingham starving his own people or Darth Vader killing his subordinates, bad guys are cavalier with human life, and they rebuke their allies for petty transgressions. This has been true since the earliest modern bad guys, though it scarcely exists among older adversaries who might be hungry for human flesh, but don’t kill their own.

Good guys, on the other hand, accept all applicants into the fold, and prove their loyalty even when their teammates transgress. Consider Friar Tuck getting drunk on ale while Robin Hood looks the other way. Or Luke Skywalker welcoming the roguish Han Solo on side. Good guys work with rogues, oddballs and ex-bad guys, plus their battles often hinge on someone who was treated badly by the bad guys crossing over and becoming a good guy. Forgiving characters their wicked deeds is an emotional climax in many good guy/bad guy stories. Indeed, it’s essential that the good side is a motley crew that will never, ever reject a fellow footsoldier.

Luke Skywalker

Again, this is a point of pride that seems incoherent in the context of pre-modern storytelling. Not only do people in ancient stories not switch sides in fights but Achilles, say, would never win because his army was composed of the rejects from the Trojans’. In old stories, great warriors aren’t scrappy recruits, there for the moral education: they’re experts.

Stories about good guys and bad guys that are implicitly moral – in the sense that they invest an individual’s entire social identity in him not changing his mind about a moral issue – perversely end up discouraging any moral deliberation. Instead of anguishing over multidimensional characters in conflict – as we find in The Iliad, or the Mahabharata or Hamlet – such stories rigidly categorise people according to the values they symbolise, flattening all the deliberation and imagination of ethical action into a single thumbs up or thumbs down. Either a person is acceptable for Team Good, or he belongs to Team Evil.

Frodo

Good guy/bad guy narratives might not possess any moral sophistication, but they do promote social stability, and they’re useful for getting people to sign up for armies and fight in wars with other nations. Their values feel like morality, and the association with folklore and mythology lends them a patina of legitimacy, but still, they don’t arise from a moral vision. They are rooted instead in a political vision, which is why they don’t help us deliberate, or think more deeply about the meanings of our actions. Like the original Grimm stories, they’re a political tool designed to bind nations together.

The idea that whole categories of people should be locked up made the concentration camps possible

It’s no coincidence that good guy/bad guy movies, comic books and games have large, impassioned and volatile fandoms – even the word ‘fandom’ suggests the idea of a nation, or kingdom. What’s more, the moral physics of these stories about superheroes fighting the good fight, or battling to save the world, does not commend genuine empowerment. The one thing the good guys teach us is that people on the other team aren’t like us. In fact, they’re so bad, and the stakes are so high, that we have to forgive every transgression by our own team in order to win.

Rumplestiltskin

When I talked with Andrea Pitzer, the author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps (2017), about the rise of the idea that people on opposite sides of conflicts have different moral qualities, she told me: ‘Three inventions collided to make concentration camps possible: barbed wire, automatic weapons, and the belief that whole categories of people should be locked up.’ When we read, watch and tell stories of good guys warring against bad guys, we are essentially persuading ourselves that our opponents would not be fighting us, indeed they would not be on the other team at all, if they had any loyalty or valued human life. In short, we are rehearsing the idea that moral qualities belong to categories of people rather than individuals. It is the Grimms’ and von Herder’s vision taken to its logical nationalist conclusion that implies that ‘categories of people should be locked up’.

Watching Wonder Woman at the end of the 2017 movie give a speech about preemptively forgiving ‘humanity’ for all the inevitable offences of the Second World War, I was reminded yet again that stories of good guys and bad guys actively make a virtue of letting the home team in a conflict get away with any expedient atrocity.

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Written by Marina Benjamin,  published on January 25th 2018, you can read the original article, titled “Why is Pop Culture So Obsessed with Battles Between Good and Evil?” in Aeon at https://aeon.co/essays/why-is-pop-culture-obsessed-with-battles-between-good-and-evil.

The Neverending Story: Part II

When Bastian hides in an attic to read a mysterious book, he discovers that this is no ordinary story……..the Neverending Story is a living book.

It tells of Fantasia, a land of magical creatures threatened by the Nothing. The Childlike Empress needs a new name and only a human child can grant it. Hardly believing what is going on and shivering in his damp attic, Bastian calls out the Childlike Empress’ new name and in doing so, he enters the Neverending Story.

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He finds himself a character within the story he was reading, Here, Bastian is handsome and bold, a boy equal in strength and courage to Atrayu. As saviour of Fantasia, he is granted AURYN, the gem of the Childlike Empress, inscribed with the words “Do As You Wish.”

Here, his imagination can create worlds. Everything he wishes, comes to pass.

Bastian is cautioned by the Childlike Empress to be aware that his wishes become realities, and these realities affect the fates of other Fantasians. Bastian can only govern Fantasia well when he considers deeply his desires and wishes only for what he truly wants.

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However, as Bastian grows in confidence, he becomes less and less aware of the deep desires that motivate him, and less careful of the consequences of his wishes. With every wish Bastian loses a memory of his former life. Atrayu points out, that without memory, Bastian cannot have a true will and without a will, he will lose himself.

Without a will, he cannot wish himself home again.

Can Atrayu save Bastian from his descent into madness? Will Bastian become trapped in Fantasia forever?

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Ende achieves in the second part of the Neverending Story, new insights of the significance of dream and myth to human health and happiness. Just as travelling into our dreams and subconscious is necessary for human health, a journey required to understand our deep complexes and to do battle with our subconscious fears, so too the converse journey is critical – the return to conscious life.

It is in the conscious world, our external world, where human relationships occur that the deep desires of the human heart are realised. Here we love, are loved, face external challenges and grow.

A person lost in dream or myth, or a person at the mercy of their fantasies and desires, without touch with the real world, is someone who eventually loses touch with their core identity, their memory, their will, even their own name.

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The maddened Bastian becomes so lost in his own fantasy that he needs a saviour, someone who can give him a name and restore enough will for him to remember his father and so desire to return home. Moreover, Bastian needs someone to remain in Fantasia to take responsibility for all the stories that his wishes have given life to.

Atrayu, despite being betrayed and wounded by Bastian steps in, reminds Bastian of his true name and in doing so restores him with enough will and memory to send him back to his conscious life.

It is Atrayu who remains in Fantasia to finish the story. And so Ende delivers the final note to his story. The true hero sacrifices himself so Bastian might have life.

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Atrayu is not a product of Bastian’s imagination. He is the character who drew Bastian into Fantasia, he was betrayed and wounded by Bastian his friend, and now as Bastian surrenders AURYN, at his wits end, Atrayu restores Bastian’s ‘self’ and ability to return to a life of relationship and being.

We need more heroes like Atrayu.

 

The Neverending Story: Part I ….

When Bastian Balthazar Bux, a shy, fat and lonely school boy, steals a mysterious book from a mysterious book shop one rainy morning, and hides in an attic to read it – little does he know of the adventurous journey on which it would take him.
Lost in the world of Fantasia, Bastian reads of the adventures of Atrayu, a boy his own age and his friend Falkor the Luckdragon, as they seek a cure for the Childlike Empress. The Empress is dying and with her, the land of Fantasia, a place where every imaginary character of dream and story lives.
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What is the cause of the Nothing which threatens to consume all of Fantasia? Can Atrayu find the cure for the Empress and turn back the destruction it brings?
Michael Ende’s classic children’s tale, The Neverending Story was first published in 1979 and has been since made into several films. Originally a playwright, Ende is best known for his children’s stories which have sold over $35 million of copies worldwide and translated into over 40 languages.
The story is a rich tapestry of mythology and legend and like all good works of fantasy plumbs the depths of human identity and purpose via our dreams.
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Moreover, like the works of many fantasy writers of the 19th and 20th centuries, including JK Rowling, CS Lewis and JRR Tolkein, Michael Ende’s fantasy functions as a polemic against modernity, rationalism, pragmatism, and progress and calls readers back to values of the romantic era, values such as the the imagination, intuition, and the transcendent.
One such key message emerges in dialogue between Atrayu, our hero, and the wolf, Gmork, a servant of the Nothing. Gmork explains the relationship between the death of Fantasia and the world of humans.
Humans have stopped believing in Fantasia, Gmork explains, and because they have stopped believing, they have stopped visiting. It is human imagination which gives Fantasia its life and without their presence, Fantasians are perishing, consumed by the Nothing.
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When humans did visit, they were able to return to their own world and see it through a more magical lens. In this way, Fantasia and the human world are necessary sides of a coin, each needing the other.
The creatures of Fantasia are not only dying, but as they are consumed by the Nothing, they end up in the human world but not in their fantastical form, but in the form of the lies. They become the vain hopes and delusions of the human world such as ambition, greed and vice.
With this brief parable, Ende manages to sum up the modern malaise. Enlightenment and post-enlightenment rhetoric of the 1700s and 1800s, emphasised the rational and scientific, marginalising the role of religion, myth and legend to the realm of childhood or the primitive man.
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The result however was the impoverishment of the subconscious, the dreamscape and the deep psyche which when left unexamined, plagued modern man with unresolved issues such as depression, malaise, unacknowledged vices, greed, self obsession and nihilism.
The Neverending Story is “preaching” the value of dreams, imagination, and story as portals to the depths of the human heart.
Through stories and dreams we can come to know ourselves and we learn to restore our connectedness, a sense of something larger than ourselves,  trust in one another and a hope for our world.

Pinocchio

Pinocchio is a classic children’s tale, first written by by Italian writer Carlo Collodi in 1883. It is a story of puppet’s journey to become a “real boy” and is commonly counted among the most popular children’s tales of all time.

Indeed, the Disney adaptation in 1940 cemented its place in the hearts and minds of children across the world. However, like many fairy tales, myths and legends, the original story is remarkably dark and even sinister in parts. Moreover, many of the motifs and elements of the story hark back to deep and resonant mythical themes.

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The story begins in Tuscany Italy, where a poor and childless woodcarver Geppetto, is given a piece of wood that talks and weeps. He carves it into a marionette and calls the puppet  Pinocchio. Immediately the puppet shows willful ungratefulness to his “father” Geppetto, kicking him and running away.

Geppetto searches for Pinochio but ends up getting thrown into jail. The hungry puppet returns home and falls asleep in front of the fire. When he awakes and Geppetto returns from jail, they find that his feet have been burned off in the fire.

Ever loving Geppetto repairs Pinocchio’s feet and sells his jacket to purchase the puppet a book to attend school. However, the marionette’s mischief does not end here. On the way to school Pinocchio is diverted by a Marionette Theatre Company and sells his school book to attend. Here he gains five gold coins but instead of returning to poor Geppetto, the puppet is lured by a wicked Cat and Fox who try to extort him of his money and leave him hanging for dead.

Cat and Fox

Rescued by a fairy with Blue Hair, Pinocchio lies to her about his gold coins and famously his nose grows long. She urges him to be a good boy and sends him on his way.

The Cat and Fox return and succeed in stealing gullible Pinocchio’s gold and in his attempt to complain to the courts, he is thrown in jail. Further adventures have Pinocchio labouring for a farmer, shipwrecked at sea, captured by the Circus and turned into a Donkey.

All this time poor Geppetto has been searching for Pinocchio and himself ended up in the belly of a giant fish. Here, in the belly of the fish,  Pinocchio himself shipwrecked, finds his father and together they escape.

Blue Hair Fairy

Finally, humbled and repentant, Pinocchio works diligently, saves money and cares for his father. Visited by the fairy with the Blue Hair in a dream, Pinocchio finds that he has indeed become a “real boy.”

The story of an inanimate object’s metamorphosis into a being of consciousness and its consequent relationship with its maker is recurrent in mythical literature. From the Torah’s account of Adam and Eve in Genesis, to  Ovid’s Pygmalion, to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and to more modern iterations is sci-fi and fantasy Blade Runner each explore the nuances of the relationship between creation and creator in different ways.

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  • Can a maker imbue his or her creation with consciousness and life, simply by loving it enough?
  • What does true freedom and love between parent and child, between creator and creation really look like?
  • What is the consequence to a creator of a creation who is given life and yet is unloved?
  • What is the consequence to a creation of rejecting the creator and seeking its own path?

In many ways, the story of Pinocchio follows the classic tropes of a “hero journey”: the leaving of the familiar, the meeting with supernatural aids or mentors, the encounters with trials and enemies, the ordeal resulting in death and the final resurrection and return.

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Pinnochio’s story, like the story of Adam and Eve, begins with rebellion. Awake and consciousness, the first choices of this new being are ones of curiosity, independence, freedom and necessary rejection of the advice of both conscience [the cricket] and the father. However, this journey leads to strife, suffering, loss, imprisonment and even death.

Adam and Eve

His turning point is his encounter with his father Geppetto in the belly of the giant fish. Here Pinocchio, descends as though into death and rescues the father, returning him to life. Rising from the ashes of this death experience, Pinocchio is a different person – loving, humble, respectful and caring for his father. It is here that receives his ultimate wish from the fairy, his wish to become a “real boy.”

The classic mythological story, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, shapes a similar motif when Luke Skywalker encounters his father, the Sith Lord, Darth Vader. Luke knows he will never become a true Jedi until he faces his father. When Luke faces Darth Vader and he resists the pressure to turn to the dark side,  he redeems his father, much like Pinocchio, redeems Geppetto from the belly of the giant fish.

This narrative trope is starkly paralleled in the Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in which acolyte to the dark side Kylo Ren faces his father Han Solo, and in an act which will make him worthy of the dark side, kills his father. With this initiation rite, he sets himself free from the tradition his father represents and graduates to the place of true dark lord.

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Pinocchio differs from darker tales such as Frankenstein and Blade Runner, which reflect on the despair and murderous ends sought by a creation spurned and unloved by its creator/ father. Pinocchio is loved by Geppetto and what holds him back from becoming a “real boy” is his own rejection of this love. His transformation comes through sacrificial reconciliation of himself to his father.

And so the biblical account of Christ, who is described as a second Adam, tells the story of a son who descends into death, to be sacrificially reconciled to the father. He reverses the alienation created by the first Adam, and leads humanity forward to ultimate metamorphosis into “true sonship” ….

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…from puppet to “real child”.

 

 

 

The Brother’s Grimm

The Brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm [1780s–1860s] were German academics, linguists, cultural researchers, lexicographers and authors who together specialized in collecting and publishing folklore during the 19th century.

They were among the best-known storytellers of folk tales, and popularized stories such as “Cinderella”,  “The Frog Prince”, “The Goose-Girl”, “Hansel and Gretel”,  “Rapunzel”, “Rumpelstiltskin”, “Sleeping Beauty”, and “Snow White”.

They wrote during a rise of romanticism and in response to trends valuing popular culture in the early 19th century. This revived interest in fairy tales, which had declined since their late-17th century peak and the Grimms rode the crest of this revival with their  collections.

The brothers  began the collection with the purpose of creating a scholarly treatise of traditional stories and of preserving the stories as they had been handed from generation to generation—a practice that was threatened by increased industrialization. According to scholars, some of the tales probably originated in written form during the medieval period  but were modified in the 17th century and again rewritten by the Grimms.

The brothers gained a reputation for collecting tales from peasants and story tellers, although many tales came from middle-class or aristocratic acquaintances. They discovered that versions of tales differed from region to region,

…picking up bits and pieces of local culture and lore, drawing a turn of phrase from a song or another story and fleshing out characters with features taken from the audience witnessing their performance.

 

 

It was this appropriation of culture and language with the retelling of the stories that led them to the conviction that a national identity could be found in popular culture from the common folk.

The brothers’ methodology for collecting and preserving folklore became a form of nationalism and “intellectual resistance” to external occupiers, a model to be followed later by writers throughout Europe during periods of oppression.

Their collections have become national and international masterpieces, classics retold in cinema, theatre, art and literature the world over.

A few points can be gathered from this brief summary of the work and significance of the Brothers Grimm.

  1. Folklore, legends and mythical stories have always had a deeper significance than simply being children’s morality tales. Their significance goes deeply into forming a sense of national and personal identity.
  2. The rise of romanticism and the threat of industrialisation created a flourishing interest in local folk lore which endures until today in some form or other. Where spirituality flourishes so does art, narrative, language, story and myth.
  3. When told in the vernacular of a region and with the nuances and influences of the customs and culture of a region, local stories can constitute “intellectual resistance” to outside influences.

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The enduring popularity of the  Grimm’s Fairy Tales indicates there is much untapped potential in the folklore, myths and legends of every region and language and ethnicity if only we had the persistence of the Grimms to catalogue and retell it.

 

 

The Velveteen Rabbit

First published in 1922, by Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit is a classic children’s tale, often rated as one of the Top 100 Books for Children.

It is a simply tale, of a toy rabbit who dreams of becoming ‘real’. Made of velvet corduroy fabric, the velveteen rabbit is given to a young boy for Christmas. Initially overlooked by the boy, the Velveteen Rabbit hears from one of the oldest nursery toys, the old Skin Horse, that toys can become real due to the love of their child. To the Velveteen Rabbit his chances of becoming real are slim.

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One night, the boys Nana gives the rabbit to him at bedtime, and soon he becomes the boy’s favourite, accompanying him on picnics and outings. At one summer picnic, the Velveteen Rabbit encounters some real rabbits who point out he cannot hop and so is not ‘real’.

When the boy falls ill with Scarlet Fever, the doctor orders him away to the seaside and all his toys and books burnt. The Velveteen Rabbit, shabby and old,  is taken out in a sack to the garden where he sadly remembers his life with the boy. Here he meets a Nursery Magic Fairy who grants him a kiss.

The following spring, the boy is visited by a rabbit who reminds him of his old toy, the Velveteen Rabbit.

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A precursor of the very popular “Toy Story” franchise, this story inhabits the world of a child’s imagination, the realm of their nursery and the toys who live there and are active when the lights turn off.

Moreover, it explores the life of these imaginations and whether they take a life of their own, due to being loved.  Not unlike the story of Pinocchio, it examines the journey of a toy, to become “real”, a journey for which Pinocchio must follow the character arc of a “heroic quest” to become reborn as a “real boy”.

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Either way, these stories illustrate human existential questions. What is beyond this mortal coil? Are we but toys in a grand play room, to become moth eaten and discarded?

If we love and are truly loved, must there be something beyond, a greater “reality” to which be belong- something that lives on because of love?

 

Spinning Straw into Gold

The Brother’s Grimm folk-story, Rumplestiltskin tells of a Miller who lies to the king, saying his daughter can spin straw into gold.

The miller, a foolish man, refers to his beautiful daughter’s blonde hair, which turns golden in the sunlight. However, the king is greedy and immediately summons the girl and locks her in a chamber to spin straw into gold on pain of death.

The poor girl sits weeping before the spinning wheel and pile of straw when suddenly a little man appears before her and asks her why she mourns. She explains her predicament and the little man offers to complete the challenge for her in exchange for a trinket – her necklace. Quick as can be, the little man begins spinning and sure enough turns the pile of straw into spools of fine gold strands.

spin straw into gold

The greedy king insists the woman repeat the challenge with more straw and more gold and again the little man appears mysteriously at midnight to help her. His request this time is for another trinket – her ring.

The third night, the king promises to marry the girl if she completes an even larger challenge. This night the little man appears and asks instead of a trinket – for the promise of her first born child. Rashly, she agrees.

In the morning the king marries her and the miller’s daughter forgets all about the little man and her wager with him. A little over a year later, the queen gives birth to a baby and one night when she is alone with the child the little man appears asking for his prize.

rumple

Distraught at her rash promise, the Queen begs for leniency but he will not relent. Finally, the little man makes an offer – if she can guess his name, she can keep the child. If she cannot, the child is his.

For three nights the man returns to her chamber as she guesses all the names she can think of. Every night she is wrong. On the day of the final visit a woodsman reports to the King and Queen of seeing a strange little man dancing in the forest, chanting about taking the Kind’s child and his name is Rumplestiltskin.

Armed with this knowledge the Queen addresses the little man who in a rage, stamps a hole in the floor and disappears forever.

alchemy

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What kind of magic the little imp had that he could turn raw materials like straw, into gold? It is not clear in the tale but the imp wields dark enough magic to require a human life in exchange for it.

What is straw but the raw materials of life and what is gold but the value attributed to anything of value – a tradeable substance worth purchasing?

 alchemist

How does one turn the raw materials of life into great value? Well any craft or art does so.

A potter turns earth and clay into pots, vases and bowls which can retails for hundreds if not thousands. Carpenters can take offcuts of timber and craft beautiful pieces of furniture. Ironmongers turn ore from the rocks into swords and machinery.

How about wordsmiths, poets, story tellers, artists and musicians?

artist

The work of an artist is to take the raw materials of life – conflict, pain, doubt, sorrow, loss, heart break, fear, trials, growth and to spin these feelings into songs, stories, poems, plays, films and paintings. These works are worth gold – plentiful in value to the viewers, listeners, readers and collectors.

But often the cost of great fame and wealth for artists is the loss of some form of themselves, their integrity, their privacy, their soul. It is as though they sell their first born child for the wealth that art, the spinning of gold from straw, will bring them.

And the solution – to know the name of fame and glory – and to label it for what it is. This acknowledgement allows an artist to accept, their wealth did not come from self, but from a whimsical imp that would trade their soul for money. In knowing this, they redeem a part of themselves and can retain their sanity and soul.

J.K. Rowling is the world’s most influential person

Psychologist Adam Grant wrote one of my favourite books “Give and Take”, a book which examines the merits and power of being someone who “gives more than they get.”

In this article, published in Tech Insider this week, he posits that children’s author JK Rowling has been incredibly influential in shaping the values of a whole generation of young people.

Here at Bear Skin, we say “Hear hear!!” The sentiment that good writing shapes empathy and broadens perspectives, in turn shaping behaviour is a Bear Skin mantra.

Please enjoy.

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J.K. Rowling is the world’s most influential person, says top psychologist — and the reasons why are stunningly convincing

by Chris Weller

If we define someone’s influence as how much they can shape people’s thoughts and goals, Adam Grant says J.K. Rowling is in a league of her own. Thanks to her “Harry Potter” books, millions of young readers have been trained in social and emotional skills that policymakers are only starting to get behind.

Grant, a professor at Wharton Business School and author of Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, recently bestowed the title of “most influential” on Rowling in a Q&A on the open forum site Parlio.

give and take 2

Not counting the Bible,

“Harry Potter has reached more people than any other book series in history,”

Grant points out.

“Never mind the movies, merchandising, and other sources of contact.”

Worldwide, “Harry Potter” books have sold more than 450 million copies.

The next highest series is “Lord of the Rings,” by J.R.R. Tolkien, at a comparably paltry 150 million copies.

tokein 4tokein 3tolkein 2

But Rowling isn’t just the most influential because she moves a lot of paper, Grant argues. It’s how her books affect kids, both in the moment and for life.

“It affects them when they’re young and impressionable — and has inspired an entire generation to read, opening the door to many other avenues for education,”

he says.

Some adults certainly read novels as a form of escape, but great novels suck you in. Science backs it up.

harry potter

Psychological research suggests that, by stepping inside the mind of a main character, reading makes us more empathetic. We consider alternative points of view and see the rationale behind choices that we may never face firsthand.

More than that, “Harry Potter” has been found to be especially helpful in reducing kids’ latent biases: Perspective-taking, wrote researchers of a 2014 study, “emerged as the process allowing attitude improvement” toward immigrants, homosexuals, and refugees when people sided with Harry over Voldemort.

harry potter  2

The stories may take place in fantastical worlds, but its relatable themes get kids thinking positively about the Earth they inhabit.

“Ms. Rowling,”

Grant says, addressing the author,

“the world would be a better place if you kept writing ‘Harry Potter’ books.”

You can read the full article from Tech Insider here.

Hammer Stew

There is an old fable in which a tramp visits a township during a famine. He carries with him a pot and meagre belongings. The hungry villagers hide in their houses and refuse to face the stranger, another potential mouth to feed.

The stranger instead offers to cook a stew for the village. He calls it “hammer stew” and fills the pot with water and places it over a fire to simmer. Soon after he takes his hammer, cleans it and places it in the boiling water. 

One by one the villagers leave their houses to inspect the hammer stew. The tramp nonchalantly mentions the stew is delicious but lacks some parsnip. Next, a timid villager offers up a parsnip. 

Later, the tramp tastes the stew and declares it to be tasty but better with mushroom. Soon, another villager offers up a handful of mushrooms.

axe soup

One by one the villagers are lured out by the smell of brewing food and offer up ingredients: leeks, parsley, potoato, some beef stock, some chicken bones, some onions etc. Before long the tramp had a pot full of delicious stew and begins to feed the hungry villagers. 

The story effectively shows the power of a visionary leader. Leadership is simply casting the vision of a potential outcome, taking the risk of starting and offering up the first resources. By taking this initative, the leader paves the way for others to offer their skills, talents and time without bearing the risk of an enterprise themselves. Their contributions take a project much farther and further than the leader could alone.

stone soup  2

Leadership is filling the pot and lighting the fire and enticing a hungry village to offer up their rations and to create something greater than the sum of its parts. 

Even in famine something delicious is possible! 

Why do we love royalty?

When most of us live in democracies or at least come from the western tradition of the equality and empowerment of the individual person, why do we consistently elevate and idealise kings and queens?

Children’s stories, Hollywood films, the press – are full of princes, princesses, royal families! Even countries that supposedly don’t have monarchies, idolise their sporting heroes, their actors or elected presidents and their spouses.

disney princess

Why do we do it when it so clearly subjects ourselves to inferior status? Why do we seek to elevate humans and grant them almost immortal heights?

Kings and queens are truly no different to ourselves, except that they descend via legal birthright from wealthy and powerful individuals, some of whom took power by force and not by merit. 

Celebrity kings and queens hold power simply because of the combination of genetic prowess, beauty, great timing and the power of marketing.

brangelina

Historically, the tradition of royal lineage became enshrined as a birthright to the oldest child or oldest male child, simply to preserve peace. Leaders arose from within a tribe, usually a meritocracy of the strongest and smartest. When this leader died, the tribe suffered instability, even risked a bloodbath as the people decided on the next leader. Each man or woman feeling they had the “merit” to rule sought the seat of power, often by the sword if necessary.

kings 4

Rules of legitimacy settled the debate – the power, wealth, land and title went to the oldest child, whether they were fit to rule or not, whether they were of age or not. This ensured peace in the land for generations. A result of the Magna Carta and later Reformation and the ensuing religious wars, was to increasingly separate church  from state, and remove absolute power from monarchs, delegating decision making rights to the populace. 

Kings and queens of history have been a mixed representative of good and bad leadership – and yet we still idealise and idolise? Why? 

Nowadays, many royal famillies retain titles and land but no real political power. Their existence is maintained by incredible wealth, posterity, charitable work, and attractive young people.

kings

So why do we cling to royalty and continuously elevate them? What purpose do they serve in the landscape of our imagination?

I would like to posit a few reasons:

  1. We are social creatures and always seek to rank ourselves within our community. In any school group, workplace, team or tribe, a pecking order will emerge. Despite our intrinsic belief that all humans are created equal, we still settle into this rank and file almost intuitively. Looking to those of wealth and status is an involuntary obsession. 
  2. We are always looking for mentors or guides. Within our community, those older or more powerful are natural guides. The pecking order of point #1 above, becomes a natural source of mentor relationships and so we seek to immitate and fashion our lives around these guides.

What is interesting about the narrative use of princes, princesses, kings and queens is that it becomes clear we seek to identify with and BECOME royalty. So while we both rank ourselves and look to mentors and guides, what emerges from the psychological landscape of stories and narrative is the primal human desire to BE royalty.

kings 2

Arguably, democracy takes royal privilege and gives it to the common man and woman. A person in command of their own potential, someone part of a free-market economy can become anyone they wish. They hold the power to their own lives and owe no-one anything. In many ways, we ARE kings and queens.

And yet we remain imprisoned by our perception of rank and idolisation of those yet more powerful, more talented, more beautiful, wealthier and better connected.

kings 5

What narratives do is they propel us momentarily into who we could be or could become. We become the hero of the tale, the prince or princess who discovers their true royalty, their true status. Their struggles and crisis, followed ulitmately by their ascendency to a throne of influence becomes our own journey.